Sugar has become a scare word to many people, while others continue to use it but wonder whether they are harming themselves. You can eat sugar in a responsible manner—if you understand why sugar can cause problems when used excessively.
Sucrose, or table sugar, tastes good to most people and to most animals as well. Raw sugar, brown sugar, beet sugar, and cane sugar are all composed largely of sucrose. Recently, many books and articles have claimed that sugar is literally a poison and should be avoided like the plague. It is being blamed for heart disease, diabetes, and many other conditions. What are the facts about sugar? Must we avoid it, or can we use it in moderation?
When we eat sugar, insulin is released into the bloodstream. Insulin is a potent hormone required by most cells to remove sugar from the bloodstream and utilize it for generating energy.
Insulin has many far-reaching effects beyond this necessary function, however. It has been shown to cause lipids (fats) to be deposited in arterial walls, and it increases fat storage in adipose (fatty) tissues by stimulating the synthesis of lipids and inhibiting their breakdown. It is also known that diabetics who are able to control their blood sugar levels by dietary means, rather than by taking insulin, may avoid most of the complications suffered by insulin-using diabetics—cardiovascular disease, blindness, etc.
Insulin also blocks the actions of growth hormone, which is necessary for proper function of the body's police force, the immune system. The decrease in output of growth hormone by the brain's pituitary gland with age is thought to contribute to the increased incidence of cancer, heart disease, and infectious disease with increasing age.
Sugars are not equal in their abilities to release insulin. Glucose (grape sugar) releases the largest amounts of insulin most rapidly. Sucrose (cane, beet, brown sugar, part of honey) is next. Fructose (fruit sugar, com syrup, most of honey), releases insulin more slowly; however, it may elevate serum triglycerides more than sucrose does. Xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and inositol do not release or require insulin.
Of course, artificial sweeterners such as Aspartame®, cyclamate, and saccharin do not release or require insulin either. With the exception of children with the genetic defect PKU, who should not use large amounts of the amino acid phenylalanine that makes up part of Aspartame®, we consider any of these artificial sweeteners to be at least as safe as sugar for normal people and to be far safer for the obese and diabetic.
It is possible to reduce lipids in the bloodstream and to reduce their deposition in arterial walls with nutrients such as niacin (3 grams per day in one study reduced serum cholesterol by 25 percent and triglycerides by 30 percent in human subjects after only two weeks), and vitamin C (0.5 gram three times a day reduced cholesterol by 35–40 percent in a human clinical trial).
Warning: If you use the acidic forms of either vitamin C or niacin in quantities of a gram or more a day, you should neutralize the acidity with baking soda or (if you are on a low-sodium diet) a nonsodium-containing antacid recommended by your doctor. This is important because it is possible for gastrointestinal damage to occur from megadoses of these vitamin acids without there being noticeable pain or discomfort. Acid vitamin problems can be minimized by taking them immediately after meals.
Excessive ingestion of sugar can lead to reactive hypoglycemia. When eaten, sugar stimulates the release of insulin. Insulin has a much longer half-life in the bloodstream than sugar does (it takes much longer for the insulin than for the sugar to decrease by half). When the excess sugar is used up, insulin is still circulating in the bloodstream. This insulin burns more sugar and can keep blood-sugar levels abnormally low for hours after the original sugar was eaten.
It has been found that certain sulfur-containing compounds, such as the nutrient amino acid cysteine, are able chemically to deactivate the insulin molecule (by reducing one or more of its disulfide bonds). A combination of vitamins B-1, C, and cysteine is a very effective remedy for reactive hypoglycemia and its unpleasant symptoms. One gram of B-1 and of cysteine and 3 grams of C would be a reasonable dose for a healthy adult.
Insulin can block the effects of a vital hormone, growth hormone, released by the brain's pituitary gland, about an hour and a half after we fall asleep. This hormone is essential for optimum function of the thymus gland (located behind the breastbone), the master gland of the immune system.
It is the thymus that instructs certain white blood cells, called T-cells, which entities in our bodies to consider foreign and, therefore, to locate, kill, and eat. If the thymus fails to give proper instructions (which can happen when there is inadequate growth hormone), the T-cells may not kill a cancer cell in your body or they may make a mistake and attack some of your own cells (which happens, for example, in rheumatoid arthritis).
The T-cells also activate other white blood cells called B-cells that produce antibodies. An error here means poor antibody defenses against infections or even antibodies against your own tissues. It is important that sucrose (table sugar in all its varied forms, as listed above) and other insulin-requiring sugars not be eaten within a few hours of bedtime so that the release of growth hormone is not inhibited by insulin.
The problem of sugar-stimulated dental caries may not necessarily be a serious one because of the availability of prescription phosphate-fluoride mouthwashes (an example is Hoyt Phos-Flur®), which are capable of preventing cavities and even repairing small ones if used regularly. The organism responsible for most decay is streptococcus mutans, for which a vaccine has been developed. If the vaccine is ever able to pass the FDA gauntlet, the ultimate solution to dental caries will be upon us.
One sugar problem that is not due to eating sugar is false readings in clinical laboratory blood-sugar tests, caused by large doses of vitamin C and other anti-oxidant nutrients such as cysteine and B-1. These nutrients interfere chemically with the most common of these clinical laboratory tests, giving falsely high blood-sugar readings with the orthotoluidine test and falsely low readings with the glucose oxidase test. We use the hexokinase test, which is free from these interferences. You should ask for this test because it is not used as frequently as the others, being somewhat more expensive.
When used in moderation and not within a few hours of going to sleep, we do not consider table sugar to be a health problem in nondiabetic, nonobese people who practice good oral hygiene. We ourselves occasionally enjoy sweet desserts without fear of harming our health.
A list of scientific literature on this topic is available through REASON. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and ask for H&W references, April.
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw are consulting scientists, authors, and TV personalities.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Health & Welfare: The Great Sugar Debate".